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A historically destructive wildfire season across much of the Western U.S. has renewed debate over intentional burns. Those managed wildfires would help clear forests and grasslands of dangerous levels of vegetation built up over decades of fire suppression. Experts say, though, we will need to intentionally burn many more acres to get the West's wildlife problem in check. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In Colorado, three of the state's five largest wildfires in history have burned this year. In California, five of the biggest on record have occurred just since August. Fire ecologists say that while people right now might not want to hear it, the most effective prevention strategy is to use more fire to fix the region's wildfire problem.
KATE WILKIN: Some people might say that, you know, they're scared of doing prescribed fire. But, you know, I'm scared what will happen in the next 10 years if we don't do prescribed fire.
WESTERVELT: That's Kate Wilkin, a fire ecologist with the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State. She recognizes how awful it's been for many in recent years - people who've lost loved ones and homes, the fear, stress and smoke-filled air drifting hundreds of miles. But in terms of forest health, Wilkin says, California is supposed to burn. So when the state topped 4 million acres burned earlier this month, Wilkin also thought...
WILKIN: Wow, we're actually getting into the ballpark of how many acres used to burn in California. Historically, somewhere between 4.4 million and 12 million acres used to burn every year.
WESTERVELT: By contrast, California in the last few years has intentionally burned just over 50,000 acres on public lands. Federal and California officials recently signed an agreement to try to boost that significantly, to treat about a million acres a year with combined thinning and controlled burns. But critics say that's nowhere near enough to meet this moment.
Malcolm North is a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service. He says a major obstacle to expanding controlled burns is institutional inertia in these large, risk-averse state and federal agencies like the one he works for.
MALCOLM NORTH: It's not something in which incremental, cautious decisions are going to solve the problem. So you need to have a cultural shift in the public's understanding about the inevitability of fire. But you also need a cultural shift within the agencies to be more supportive of the use of fire.
WESTERVELT: If historically flawed forest management is half the problem here - battling most every fire - the other half is the world's warming climate, with hotter, drier conditions igniting a century of built-up fuel, says Michael Wara with Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.
MICHAEL WARA: The problem has kind of turned from this thing that we can manage to a monster.
WESTERVELT: And taming that monster through intentional fire, Wara says, is vital, yet costly. It's estimated that thinning and prescribed burns can cost up to $2,000 per acre.
WARA: Coming up with the money to do this at scale has always been a major obstacle. We need sustained federal and state financial support if we're going to have any hope of moving the needle.
WESTERVELT: Other barriers to doing more intentional burns include tough environmental rules and liability laws. And then there's safety. The vast majority of these fires are done without harm to people or property, but they're not risk-free. For example, a park service controlled burn 20 years ago near Los Alamos, N.M., got out of control when high winds picked up. Some 400 homes burned. The federal nuclear lab there was threatened. Withering criticism and congressional hearings followed.
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HEATHER WILSON: The plan was flawed. The higher-ups rubber-stamped it. The burn boss was not qualified to do a fire this big.
WESTERVELT: That Los Alamos fire became the Enron of controlled burns, a rare but spectacularly botched event whose effect is still felt today across federal agencies. Despite the long, bitter fights in Washington over how to manage the nation's forests, there are currently several bills in the U.S. Senate that would significantly boost federal funding for intentional fires. One of them even has some bipartisan support.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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